Not Sure If You’ve Noticed, But The AL West Is Killing It Right Now

When it came time for me to book a vacation, I looked at the calendar and decided that the first week of December would be a good time to take some time off. The free agency period would be more than a month old and I figured things would be quiet until the end of the annual Winter Meetings, which have just gotten underway. Boy was I wrong about that. Just as I was set to leave on vacation last week there was a major signing announced. Then came a flurry of activity that seemed hell bent on ruining any chance I had at relaxing while I was away. Here are just a few of the signings that conspired to ruin my vacation last week:

Tampa Bay Rays – Acquired C Ryan Hanigan from the Reds and Heath Bell from the Diamondbacks,

The Mariners stunned the baseball world by wrapping up Robinson Cano for 10 years.  Photo credit: njnetfanThe Mariners stunned the baseball world by wrapping up Robinson Cano for 10 years. Photo credit: njnetfan

sending RHP Justin Choat and a player to be named to Arizona and LHP David Holmberg to Cincinnati.

Hanigan is a high-contact hitter (91.8 percent career Contact rate) with an aggressive approach at the plate and below average power for a catcher. Excessive infield pop-ups and a very low BABIP (.216) conspired to ruin his batting average (.198) in 2013. He should bounce back with regular at bats as part of a platoon with Tampa Bay. Joe Maddon may be able to work some magic and return Hanigan to Fantasy relevance in deeper AL-only play but he has a long way to go to make an impact in mixed leagues.

Heath Bell looked a little better towards the end of 2013, but he’ll be another reclamation project for the Rays. Since they were willing to deal with Fernando Rodney’s shortcomings, it’s entirely possible they will tolerate Bell’s long ball problems and install him as a closer if needed. Therefore, Bell should be on your radar as a potential source of saves, but he probably won’t get the gig out of Spring Training.

Philadelphia Phillies – Acquired LHP Brad Lincoln from the Toronto Blue Jays for C Erik Kratz and LHP Rob Rasmussen.

Brad Lincoln is a hard throwing lefty with severe control and long ball issues. He doesn’t have much potential to close and is probably destined for a specialist role (LOOGY) with the Phillies.

Kratz did an admirable job behind the plate for the Phillies when Carlos Ruiz was suspended for PED use. He’ll serve a backup role for Toronto and as such will have little or no value in Fantasy play.

Rasmussen was a top prospect for the Dodgers just a few years ago but he hasn’t progressed in his command and control as expected. If the Blue Jays can straighten out the quirks in his delivery to cut down on the walks, he has some nasty breaking stuff that could make him a valuable bullpen piece. However, the big “ifs” and his lack of a solid fastball will keep him from closing games, so his value in Fantasy is nil.

Oakland A’s – Acquired OF Craig Gentry and RHP Josh Lindblom from the Texas Rangers for OF Michael Choice and IF Chris Bostick. The A’s also acquired RHP Luke Gregerson from the San Diego Padres for OF Seth Smith, and signed LHP Scott Kazmir to a two-year deal.

Gentry is a decent hitter with plus speed but he lacks power. Since only four AL teams stole fewer bases than the A’s, Billy Beane probably acquired Gentry to bolster the team in that category. Gentry can play all three outfield positions and will likely be used as the fourth outfielder on the roster, spelling Coco Crisp, Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick to get about three starts per week. Of course, given Crisp’s injury history, Gentry will likely start plenty of games in center field. He’ll have value in AL-only leagues due to his speed but he’s more of an injury replacement in mixed leagues.

Josh Lindblom is another former Dodgers prospect whose development has not gone as planned. At best, he projects as a future bullpen piece, but he’ll need to harness his control and polish his mechanics before he’s ready to contribute to the A’s. Unfortunately, he probably won’t ever have any Fantasy value.

Luke Gregerson will probably get a shot at closing games for the A’s unless they re-sign Grant Balfour or make another deal. Gregerson hasn’t exactly thrived as a closer in the past, at least not like he did in setup work. However, he has a nasty slider that consistently misses bats and produces decent strikeout numbers, so he’s clearly capable of doing the job. He should be on the radar of Fantasy managers in all game formats next season.

Scott Kazmir returned from oblivion to resurrect his career and put up better than expected innings for the Indians in 2013. He regained his long lost velocity (and then some) by rediscovering the mechanics that made him such a hot prospect back when the Mets drafted him then traded him away to the Rays. The A’s pitcher-friendly home park should help Kazmir continue his big comeback and if the offense offers some run support he could easily win 15-18 games with better than league average ratios. He’ll certainly be a staple in AL-only leagues and a decent back of the rotation starter for mixed league play.

Michael Choice is ready to contribute to the Rangers now and he has a decent chance to be one of their starting corner outfielders in 2014. Choice has emerging raw power but he strikes out quite often and probably won’t hit for more than a .260 average. However, his power has developed enough that he could be a useful fourth or fifth outfielder in deep mixed leagues.

Chris Bostick is a middle infield prospect who has the tools to be a starting second baseman at some point. He doesn’t have any elite tools but he has solid gap power and the plate skills to hit for average. Bostick should also be able to steal double-digit bases despite having just average speed. Jurickson Profar blocks him at second base and Elvis Andrus at shortstop, so until one or the other is gone the best he can expect is a utility role with the Rangers. However, he could be the heir apparent at either position somewhere down the line.

Seth Smith’s move to the Padres won’t do his production any favors, as spacious Petco Park will suppress his already below average power. Smith will likely be stuck in a platoon anyway, so his Fantasy value will be limited to the deepest of NL-only leagues.

Minnesota Twins – Signed free agent SP Ricky Nolasco to a four-year contract and came to terms with SP Phil Hughes on a three-year deal.

Ricky Nolasco is a bit of an anomaly in that he’s consistently under-performed his skill set. Nolasco showed some improvement last season, posting a 3.70 ERA and raising his strikeout rate after several years of decline. He has the stuff to be a decent middle of the rotation pitcher and an innings eater for a team that desperately needs several. If he can continue where he left off in 2013, there is some potential mixed league value here, but Nolasco is probably best utilized in AL-only play.

Phil Hughes had his worst year as a professional in 2013. However, a closer look at the numbers reveals that a change of scenery could be just what the doctor ordered. Hughes has always been homer-prone, but he was victimized repeatedly in Yankee Stadium last season with 17 of his 24 homers allowed occurring in the Bronx. Hughes really can’t be any worse than his 2013 numbers, but he probably won’t ever be as good as his 2010 season. Look for something in between the two for the Twins next season, when AL-only leaguers will want to invest in him as a back end starter while mixed leaguers should wait and see before taking a leap of faith.

Houston Astros – Acquired OF Dexter Fowler and a player to be named from the Colorado Rockies for OFBrandon Barnes and SP Jordan Lyles. Agree to terms on a two-year deal with SP Scott Feldman.

Dexter Fowler is loaded with the kind of skills that make Fantasy managers quiver in anticipation of a breakout season. But injuries and under-performance have been the story of Fowler’s career to date, enough so that the Rockies grew tired of waiting and cut bait. Whether Fowler will finally break out in a new environment depends on whether you believe he’s an underachiever with poor work habits, as some have said, or he’s just had an extended run of tough luck. Like most Rockies players, Fowler has hit more than 50 points higher in Colorado than on the road over his career, so I’m not optimistic that we’ll see much more than he’s already shown us. I expect that the change to the AL will lower his overall production some, and the Astros lack of support hitters will only take Fowler lower.

Scott Feldman is a league average type of pitcher with middling skills and a long track record as a .500 pitcher. Moving to a team that offers poor run support isn’t going to make his numbers any better. At best, he’s a back of the Fantasy rotation starter in AL-only play. Mixed leaguers will want to pass altogether.

Brandon Barnes was unimpressive in his first full season in the majors in 2013. He strikes out a ton, didn’t show the patience at the plate he exhibited in the minors and chased too many pitches out of the zone. Barnes is supposed to have a similar power/speed profile to the man he was traded for (Fowler), but he has yet to show that kind of upside in the majors. He looks like bench depth for the Rockies right now, unless they opt to return him to the minors for polish. Given that he is 27 years old, the clock is ticking on his opportunity to blossom in The Show. The skills are there, but it’s a matter of speculation as to whether they’ll ever show up.

Jordan Lyles doesn’t have overpowering stuff and he doesn’t strike out a lot of batters. He’s shown good control in the minors, not so much in the majors, and the Rockies are betting he’ll continue to generate solid groundball numbers. Regardless of that, he’s probably not the kind of Rockies pitcher that can be trusted in your Fantasy rotation. At best, Fantasy managers will want to wait and see how he pitches in his new hitter-friendly home before making the leap of faith.

Detroit Tigers – Signed free agent RP Joe Nathan to a two-year deal.

It’s been a few years since the Tigers have had a legitimate closer on the team. Joe Nathan is certainly legitimate with 43 saves for the Rangers in 2013 and 341 career saves since 1999. Nathan still throws a fastball with good gas (92.4 mph in 2013) despite the fact that he’ll be 40 years old next season, but he relies on his slider more than ever as his out pitch. He underwent Tommy John surgery just three years ago but came back as strong as ever. He’ll be a Top 10 closer again in 2014 with the potential for another 40-plus save season.

Boston Red Sox – Signed free agent C A.J. Pierzynski to a one-year contract. Re-signed free agent 1B Mike Napolito a two-year deal and free agent RP Edward Mujica to a two-year contract.

The Red Sox were never serious bidders for Brian McCann, mainly because they refuse to hand out long-term deals after being burned by Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. So to fill their need for a catcher, signing Pierzynski to a one-year deal gives them a better hitter than Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the man he replaces, and the flexibility to either bring up a farmhand or sign another catcher next winter. Meanwhile, Pierzynski has a career .322/.328/.424 triple slash line at Fenway over his career, and he still has plenty of pop despite his age (37 years). He’s a Top 20 catcher in 2014.

Mike Napoli ended up staying with Boston, a move that is probably best for all concerned. He hit well in Fenway Park (.249/.360/.457) and adapted well to full-time play at first base. The loss of catcher eligibility hurts his Fantasy value quite a bit, but he’ll still have plenty of value as a first baseman in mixed league play because of his power.

Edward Mujica represents bullpen depth for the Red Sox but if Koji Uehara falters after his heavy workload in 2013, he’ll be in line to close games again. He could also be a source of holds if the Sox use him in the later innings as a bridge to their setup man.

Chicago White Sox – Re-signed free agent 1B Paul Konerko to a one-year deal.

Konerko suffered through his worst season as a pro in 2013 but his peripheral numbers indicate that all may not be lost for the first baseman. His batted ball profile is within his normal range and he didn’t strike out any more than usual. There is a good chance that his power, which never really materialized last season, could return if he is fully healthy in 2014. Overall, Konerko will be a high risk-high reward draft pick next season. If he can be had on the cheap, he’ll be worth a flier late in mixed league drafts because the potential for 30 home runs is still there.

New York Yankees – Signed free agent IF/OF Kelly Johnson to a one-year contract. Also signed free agent OFCarlos Beltran to a three-year deal, re-signed SP Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year deal and locked up free agent OFJacoby Ellsbury for seven years.

Adding Carlos Beltran to the roster gives the Yankees a pretty crowded outfield for next year. However, given Beltran’s occasional health problems and the advanced ages of all their outfielders, the Yankees may need plenty of depth to get through the season. Beltran will thrive from the left side of the plate in Yankee Stadium with its short porch in right field, and there is no reason to think he’ll produce anything less than last year’s .296/.339/.491 line in 2014. That makes Beltran a Top 30 outfielder in mixed league play and one of the most valuable outfielders in AL-only leagues.

Jacoby Ellsbury will also thrive in Yankee Stadium, but I wouldn’t pencil him in for 30-plus homers based on his new home park. His 2011 numbers (32 HRs) appear to be an outlier, as Ellsbury was never projected to be a power hitter. However, if he remains healthy (he’s played just two full seasons since 2008) he has the potential to steal 50-plus bases and hit 20 home runs as the leadoff hitter for the Yankees. Ellsbury will be a Top 10 outfielder in mixed leagues.

Kelly Johnson isn’t exactly a replacement for Robinson Cano, but he can be a stopgap option for the Yankees at second base if they’re unable to swing a deal for someone better. Although, it’s hard to imagine that they won’t be able to get someone better. Johnson has good power but he’s a free swinging hacker at the plate, who strikes out way too often and won’t exceed a .240 batting average as a result. He’s best suited in a utility role, much like the way the Rays used him. However, if the Yankees can clean up his approach at the plate, he could surprise and thrive, which would do a ton for his Fantasy value, especially if he does end up being the Yankees starting second baseman.

Hiroki Kuroda was the Yankees best starting pitcher in 2013. Somehow, Brian Cashman talked Kuroda into re-upping for another season instead of retiring and returning back to Japan. His strikeout rate has dropped in each of the last four seasons but he’s been surprisingly consistent as far as his ratios go. The low K totals make him less than desirable for Fantasy use, but he still has mixed league value as a back end of the rotation starter.

Seattle Mariners – Signed free agent 2B Robinson Cano to a three-year contract.

The Mariners surprised everyone by extending a 10-year contract to Cano. However, the average salary per year (approx. $23M) makes sense, as Cano was the best available player this winter and probably for several winters to come. The Mariners should get plenty of value out of Cano over the first three to five years of the deal. The move to Safeco for half of his games shouldn’t hurt Cano’s production as he’s amasses a .305/.350/.487 line there in 163 plate appearances. His home run totals may drop a bit, but I still expect him to produce numbers worthy of a first round mixed league player.

Obviously, I haven’t covered all of the trades and signings of the past week. So look for a second edition of Offseason Musings in a couple of days that will cover the rest of the action from the Winter Meetings as they wrap up.